Do you have what it takes to run a successful digital marketing agency?

how to set up a digital agency
influencer marketing
Josh Steimle, CEO of MWI, is one of the world’s leading influencer marketers. Photo by Victor Fraile / studioEAST

The lure of setting up and growing a digital or any kind of creative agency can be incredibly strong. You may be driven by a need to make the big decisions (and take the risks, too).

Perhaps you want to win some impressive clients and produce award-winning work. Maybe your primary goal is to be home when the kids finish school.

Whatever the reason, it’s a big and exciting step, but one that’s not without challenges, as Josh Steimle, reveals in this interview.

Josh is founder of global digital agency MWI, which has offices in Utah, Arizona, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Josh and MWI are extremely successful, but it wasn’t always that way. Josh has had to work really hard and overcome some obstacles to get to where he is today. Josh shares his journey and some of those challenges in this interview. You can read our first interview with Josh here.

Find the right people to work with

Apart from the basics and essentials, such as hard work, planning, discipline, and branding, what does it take to build a thriving agency?
In my case it also took a lot of time. I started my agency in 1999, and it’s only within the past two years I feel we’re finally on track to achieve the kind of success I dreamed about when I started it.

But if you look at why it took so long, I’d say the reason is that it took me so long to find the right people to work with.

Don’t get me wrong, I worked with some great people from 1999 to 2014, but I wasn’t the right match for them or they weren’t the right match for me. In 2013 I met my partner Corey Blake and he started working with me and then became a full partner at the end of 2013/beginning of 2014 and it was around that time things really began to take off.

MWI is thriving because of the team we recruited. Get the right people in a room together and amazing things happen.

A large part of why they took off was because Corey knows how to sell, but it’s also because he’s a great leader and entrepreneur and has been the perfect accountability partner for me. Not only did he bring his own skills to MWI, but he has helped me up my game.

Other team members we’ve brought on have also made huge impacts at MWI, whether it’s Michelle Payne who oversees project management and basically makes sure things happen the way they should, or Kurtis Kildew who started out in sales, moved to account management, and has now become our COO and is managing . . . well, everything.

Successful leaders don’t freak out

Josh, let’s look more closely at the kind of person who can run a successful agency. A lot of people get excited about being their own boss, and the hustle of marketing, but clearly one needs to be able to live with risk and ambiguity. How do you manage these aspects of being in business? What other characteristics are vital to success?

Stoicism. That’s a large part of what helps me survive.

And I credit my parents for instilling it in me. My parents are pretty indifferent, not in a negative way, but nothing ever flustered them. They were grounded in the things that matter most, and the little things were kept in the proper perspective.

That’s what I see in other successful leaders. They don’t freak out, they stay calm, they don’t lose it. Sure, some leaders mess up now and then, like Travis Kalanick, the CEO of Uber, who got caught on camera losing his cool with one of his drivers, but these are the exceptions. I don’t think that’s the norm for Travis, and I don’t think other leaders who are successful are ranting and raving all or much of the time. Successful leaders are confident, and they instill confidence in others. - @joshsteimle Click To Tweet

I like to think of “The Perfect Man,” or God, and ask myself: “How would a perfect, all knowing being handle this situation?” He wouldn’t rant and rave, he wouldn’t yell, he’d be in control. I wasn’t a fan of Obama’s policies, but I’ve got to admit he was great at appearing cool, calm, and in control. Unflappable.

You’ve got to have a lot of that to run a successful agency because there are always emergencies, you’re always going to have one client or another freaking out, and one person freaking out is enough.

Do you think it’s good to be setting up your own agency right after graduating? How valuable is some experience?
I’m thankful for all the experiences I’ve had, and maybe it’s just a grass-is-greener thing, but I wish I could go back and have started out by working in another agency, even if only for a year, just to see how someone else did it. Actually, I’d still love to do that.

I wish I could trade places with Gary Vaynerchuk for a week and then get back together and compare notes.

On the other hand, if I had worked for someone else I might have seen them doing something a certain way and have assumed “Oh, this is the way it has to be,” and maybe I would have adopted some bad habits. Experience is good if it leads you to make good decisions, but if it leads you off course then it’s not helpful. I would like to have had some good experience before starting my agency.

Generalist or niche?

Many agencies appear to appeal to anyone who may want to use their services, i.e. the one-stop-shop approach. Is that a good thing, or is it better to find a niche?
I was talking with John Hall from Influence & Co the other day and he has a niche and my agency is more full service, and he told me he thought I had taken the better path, and I told him I thought he was on the road that was more likely to lead to success. Obviously people have been successful both ways, so I don’t think anyone can say one is better than the other, it’s all about what you want to do.

For me, I have certain goals, certain things I want to experience, and I see that I’m better able to achieve those goals and have those experiences running a full service agency, so we design and build websites, we do SEO, SEM, social, content marketing, PR, etc. My friend Wil Reynolds at SEER Interactive focuses on SEO, SEM, and analytics, and won’t touch a web design project (last I spoke to him about it). There’s no right or wrong way, it becomes good or bad based on how well you execute.

That said, I think it’s easy for entrepreneurs to succumb to shiny object syndrome and get pulled into doing too much, too fast, in ways that mean they’re not good at anything. It harms the profitability and growth potential of the business.

I’ve had those experiences, for sure, and we’ve sometimes had to pull back and say whoa, we can’t take this on right now, maybe later. Just because someone’s offering you money to do something doesn’t mean you have to take it.

Set your price at what the market can bear

What’s the best way of determining your price/worth, especially in the early days when one is working hard to bring in clients?
I’ve never seen a new agency charge too much. I’ve seen a lot of agencies, mine included, charge far too little for their services.

I charge what the market can bear. There is no absolute value for my services. There’s no such thing as a “fair price” for anything in this world, there’s only what buyers are willing to pay, and what sellers are willing to sell for.

If the buyer feels that her money is worth less than the service she’s buying, and the seller feels the money is worth more than what he’s selling, then you have the necessary ingredients for a good deal, and both people walk away from the deal better off.

If something I sell is worth $100,000 to a client, but I’d be willing to sell it for $10,000, I don’t sell it for $10,000, I sell it for $100,000. Then, I make sure we do an incredible job and deliver huge value, and because I charged $100,000 I have the budget to make that happen. I also now have a profit which I can use to make my company better, so that future clients get even more value for what they pay.

If I were to only charge $10,000 I would probably hold back, not deliver as much value, the client wouldn’t be as happy, my future clients wouldn’t have access to the higher level of service, and it’s lose-lose.

Charge as much as you can, don’t feel guilty about it, and use your profits to build a business that is constantly improving and delivers amazing value. Be prepared to say “no” to low prices that don’t allow you to deliver the service you want to be known for, even if it means short-term suffering.

It’s easy to imagine having some initial success and then taking your foot off the gas, or even complacency setting in. How do you stay focused on the salesperson role, without overdoing it?
From 2007-2012 I got lazy, and I didn’t even need success to get there! It’s way too easy to get comfortable as soon as you’re paying your bills and are reasonably safe. The antidote for me was to surround myself with people who are hungry and ambitious. They don’t let me get complacent. They’re constantly bringing me back to focus on where my attention needs to be.

Work smarter, not longer

And in contrast to the question above, what about balance, downtime, family time, and re-energizing to renew focus and get some creativity going? Is it all blood, sweat, and tears at the start, or can a startup afford to take a break?
It’s a mistake to think that more work = more success. I don’t know any startup that has been successful without some hard work, but I know a lot of startups that haven’t been successful in spite of a lot of hard work. Hard work does not guarantee success, and in many cases working too hard contributes to failure.

I’m a big fan of artificial constraints. If you’re fat and you need to lose weight for your health, buy smaller plates to eat off of. Studies have proven this works. When I want to work better, I put limits on my time. When I put limits on my time, I prioritize better, I get more creative about how to get work done, I build systems to improve my work.

I used to work 80-100 hour weeks and I was a failure. Then I changed to working 30-40 hours per week, and my productivity and output went way, way up, and I achieved much better outcomes. It wouldn’t have achieved the success I did without putting that artificial constraint on my hours.

Ryan Holiday has a great book called The Obstacle is the Way, and the basic premise is that when you confront a challenge, look at it as an opportunity rather than a setback.

If I hadn’t failed so miserably by working on my business on my own, I wouldn’t have brought on a partner, and I would have been limited in the success I’ve been able to achieve.

But why bother waiting for life to deliver challenges to you? Create your own artificial challenges or obstacles, in a safe and controlled environment, at the time and place of your choosing, and then you can avoid emergency situations that come up in the natural course of events.

I remember reading in an interview that entrepreneur John Rampton said one of the reasons employees quit agencies is because of a lack of support. What do you do to make sure your team is supported by a clear framework so that they understand how to execute their work?
John’s a friend of mine, but I’d back him up on this even if he weren’t, and I would say this is an area where MWI needs to improve a lot. Right now we rely on our team members to support themselves to a large extent. We’ve gone out and hired freelancers for that reason, because we know they can work on their own, without much supervision or support.

But as we grow we know that will change, and that we need to provide systems and processes that take burdens off the backs of our team members and allow them to specialize and focus on what they do best.

The best support is frequent, frank communication. Team members need to know what other team members are thinking, especially what leadership is thinking, and leadership needs to know what the other team members are thinking.

And the only way to make that happen is to communicate openly, and often. I’m good at the frank part; I’m not very good at the frequent part.

I wish I’d known . . .

What things do you wish you had known before setting up MWI?
That time moves fast. I agree/disagree with Gary Vaynerchuk on this. I agree there are those who are jumping in and rushing too much and making bad decisions as a result, whereas if they would take a step back and be a bit more patient they would do a better job and be more likely to achieve their ambitions.

I’ve made a lot of mistakes because I was over-ambitious and hasty - @JoshSteimle Click To Tweet

Mistakes like hiring the wrong person because I didn’t want to take the time to interview three people for a position and I went with the first person who seemed like a halfway good fit.

On the other hand, I wish I had known that 17 years could go by so fast. It would have sobered me up, made me realize I couldn’t mess around, and I would have taken my business more seriously, earlier on.

Josh’s advice for creative startups

What top three pieces of advice would you give to someone setting up a creative agency today?
1. Surround yourself with people who are so good they scare you, because you’re afraid they’ll see through you and lose respect for you. That’s exactly who you want on your team.

2. Hold people accountable with clear objectives rather than vague directives, but then leave people free to accomplish those objectives in the way they feel is best.

3. Get your personal life in order. If your relationship with your spouse is bad, it will affect your business. If you don’t take care of your health through good eating and regular exercise it will affect your business.

Marketer, author and speaker Josh Steimle

Josh Steimle is author of Chief Marketing Offiers at Work, and his articles have been published in Time, Inc., TechCrunch, Mashable, Forbes, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and VentureBeat. He’s presented at TEDx, ClickZ, AdTech, MOSA, Echelon, and CommunicAsia.

Josh is also one of the world’s leading influencer marketers. As a thought leader, Josh works with executives and entrepreneurs, guiding them on how to become influencers and thought leaders in their space. He’s also an international speaker on marketing and influence. Find Josh on Linkedin, follow him on Twitter, and find his Facebook page here.

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Sheelagh Caygill

Sheelagh Caygill is a journalist, content marketer, and communications specialist. She has worked for newspapers, news organizations and in the corporate and non-profit sector in Canada and the U.K. Based in Toronto, she is freelancing and looking for a permanent position. Contact her via the contact form on this site or Linkedin.

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